15 more small cars with big power
It really is the perfect recipe. Here are the star bakers
Generally, if you think ‘How can I get the most engine in the least amount of car?’, your best bet is usually to place a quick call to the lads at Flyin’ Miata. Chances are that quick call will turn into a long and quite pricey call, which will then result in a long and rather humbling conversation with your significant other when they realise the new sofa budget has instead been spent on a heroically overpowered small roadster.
But who needs sofas when you have something custom-designed to get you out of the house as much as possible? Your sofa, your TV, your stereo – nothing more than dust collectors if you possess an LS-powered Miata.
Because they’re LS engines, it really is a case of just how much power you want, and just how little self control you can exercise. Helpfully, the Flyin’ Miata techs do fit uprated brakes and so on to make sure you can contain the car’s lunacy, if not your own.Advertisement - Page continues below
Ah, the AMC Gremlin. It’s a hacked-up and hatch-backed saloon from a brand that’s long dead, named after a hard-to-track-down problem. It’s from the Malaise era, where power took a decade-long sabbatical from American engines. And yet, for some reason, we absolutely dig it. Are we nailing this Seventies lingo at all, party people?
Moving on. While we still think the standard Gremlin is almost unsalvageable crap, there is a very good reason why there’s an ‘almost’ in that definition: the Randall 401-XR. With at least 255bhp (and generally far more) on tap from a 6.6-litre V8 – and enough torque to literally twist its own axle – the 1970s Randall 401-XR could easily run 12-second quarter miles, faster than the contemporaneous Mustang Mach 1 and even the famed Dodge Challenger 440 Six Pack. So yeah, they might be prettier, but the 401-XR is faster. Choices, choices...
As far as we can tell, AMG is pretty much an eternal wellspring of titanically powerful engines. And while it’s the V8s that understandably draw our most ardent affection, it’s not like the engines that are half the size and have half the cylinders are exactly slouches, is it?
Back when the first A45 came out, we nearly choked on our tongues when we heard its turbo 2.0-litre would be good for more than 350bhp. Then the insanity just kind of ratcheted up from there, first to more than 370bhp, then more than 380 in the new A45 and more than 410bhp in the A45 S. This is just lunacy.
It is necessary for a small hatchback to comfortably exceed 400bhp? Yes, in much the same way that it’s necessary to use a railway sleeper as a flyswat. Of course it’s overkill. It even verges on over-overkill, where fans of regular overkill start to have second thoughts about just how dead the thing in question needs to be.Advertisement - Page continues below
Formulas are not inherently interesting things. In high school, our eyes glazed over and our mind went on merry trips every time we were faced with them. Even simple formulas, like Formula One, tend to bore us to tears. That could be because an hour-and-a-half discussion on tyres isn’t really our bag, but that’s not really here nor there.
However, there is one formula that bucks this boring trend: American V8s in British sports cars. And can anyone say the original Shelby Cobra didn’t nail it straight out of the box?
Yeah, they got bigger engines and bigger flares later on, fat tyres and all the stuff that nearly every single remake and homage copies, but what about the lithe lines of the original CSX 2000? To us, it’s absolute perfection. And more than enough to fit Ford’s 4.7-litre V8, then go out and blow Corvettes into the weeds, just as Carroll Shelby intended.
Here are some things you might ask for as a prospective Caterham buyer: legroom. Rain protection that doesn’t take as long to put together as a stage at Glastonbury. Somewhere to put a backpack.
And here are some things you probably won’t ask for: satellite navigation. An automatic gearbox. Or, we don’t know... how about 310 bloody horsepower? As knowers of facts about cars, you’ll be aware that Caterhams aren’t the biggest of cars. In fact we’re pretty sure some bobsleds are bigger. And also heavier.
So this means, with 310bhp, the power-to-weight ratio of a Caterham 620S is about 500bhp per tonne. Which is what you need to reach orbit around the earth, not Oxford. And yet, for the brave, the foolish and the crazy, you can have an even more insane version, with a sequential gearbox, dinky racing wind deflector and bottom-punishing race seats. Oh, and a power-to-weight ratio of more than 600bhp per tonne.
Ford Focus RS Mountune
The most recent Focus RS is, in no uncertain terms, absolutely bloody magical. It follows the same formula as the Mercedes-AMG A45 – towers of power, harnessed and delivered via four-wheel drive – but manages to do it with more of a glint in its eye and a smile on its face. Where the A45 is deadly serious, even if you’re behaving like a buffoon, the Focus RS encourages buffoonery. Little wonder, then, that the Australian fun police (and also the actual police, who are often difficult to distinguish) jumped on its drift mode as a harbinger of the incipient hooning apocalypse and tried to get the car – or at least the drift mode – pulled from sale.
Luckily, the ‘we know what’s best for you’ brigade failed to do anything more than draw attention to the RS. And even without drift mode, the RS remains one of the most entertaining hot hatches of all time. Does the 345bhp help? Well, it doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
It seems, however, that Mountune wanted to make sure if power was helping or hindering the Focus RS’s fun factor. To do this, they’ve made merry with go-faster tweaks until the 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine is on the jaw-dropping side of 500bhp. Five hundred and thirteen, if you’re the precise type.
Lotus Exige 430
Hey, does anyone else remember when Lotus was the ‘keep your damn power; we have lightness’ company? It was words to that effect, in any case. But then there’s the Exige 430, so named because it sports – you guessed it – 430bhp worth of supercharged V6 sitting right behind your head.
To say it wails like a banshee would a) be a boring rehashing of an old simile b) utterly redundant to anyone who’s heard one at full throttle and c) wholly overestimating the screaming abilities of your average banshee. It wails like 100 dive-bombing Stukas, yet has the not-insignificant upside of not remodelling vast tracts of London unless you are a spectacularly poor driver.
It is also, by dint of being a Lotus, about the size and weight of a dinghy. This makes for a driving experience so eye-widening that your average Exige 430 driver is often mistaken for an anime character.Advertisement - Page continues below
Hennessey Venom GT
But what if a paltry 430bhp just won’t cut it for your Lotus? Well, we have the numbers of quite a few helpful counsellors who’d like to have a friendly chat with you – no pressure. We also have the number of an American who will happily supply something that not only eclipses the Exige 430, but raises the performance stakes to the point where we debate calling the result a ‘hypercar’ or ‘recipe for the fastest crash you’ve ever had’.
Really, we should have seen this coming. Leave it to the Americans to take the British maxim of ‘Simplify, then add lightness’ and add their own little addendum: ‘Also add shedloads of power’. The... Madness? Brilliance? Brillness? Whatever it is, it started with the Shelby Cobra and winds up with the Hennessey Venom GT. Sure, the donor Lotus swelled to accept John Hennessey’s ideas on what ‘enough power’ and ‘enough speed’ are, but it’s still a tiny little thing. Just one with the power of your average nuclear reactor.
Not the most aggressive car you’ve ever seen, is it? In fact, to non-Brits, the Sunbeam Tiger looks pretty much like every other small British roadster that came out in the Sixties. But underneath the flat-cap-approved styling lurks a very special surprise: American V8 power.
That’s right – on the hunt for more power, on the advice of superlative F1 driver Jack Brabham and with the V8-shoehorning expertise of Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles ready to deploy, Brian Rootes (son of Lord Rootes, Mr Boss Man at the Rootes Group) commissioned a prototype Sunbeam Alpine with a 4.3-litre Ford V8 under the bonnet. Or hood, depending on whose frame of reference you’re speaking from. But here’s an idea of how tight a squeeze we’re talking about: to change one bank of spark plugs, you need to go in through the firewall. That’s snug.
Amazingly, the result got the green light from Lord Rootes and became the second brilliant mashup of British sports cars and American muscle to grace the 1960s. The first? Shelby Cobra, obvs.
Because the Tiger was a car from the Sixties with an American engine, there was only 160bhp from the 4.3-litre as standard. But, because enough never seems to be enough, dealers apparently had performance bits ready to go that bumped that figure up to 245bhp, which is a very large amount of power to apply through five-inch-wide cross-ply tyres.Advertisement - Page continues below
The Lancia Stratos seems to be the perfect combination: a tiny, supremely lightweight, two-door, mid-engined coupe, made by Lancia at what was arguably its zenith, and powered by the Ferrari V6 from the Dino 246. And it seems that way because it absolutely is the perfect combination. Sometimes things work like that.
It’s also a combination that won three World Rally Championships on the trot, and probably would have nabbed a fourth if it wasn’t yanked from competition to spruik the new Fiat 131 Abarth. Really, we shouldn’t be surprised that Lancia is now a relic, sold only in Italy and beloved by men who still wind their watches in the morning – Fiat oversaw its demise since the Seventies.
But before Fiat could strangle the life out of what’s possibly the most innovative and interesting car brand ever, Lancia managed to make a series of heroically entertaining – and terrifyingly quick – cars, like the 037, Delta S4 and Delta Integrale, to mention just a few. But for the best mix of big power and tiny car? It has to be the Stratos.
Fun fact: not everyone in the Top Gear office can fit into a Dallara Stradale. For some, and we’re definitely not naming names, going barefoot is the only way to ensure you don’t tread on your right foot with your left foot and turn a gentle-brake-with-downshift into a full panic stop, while none other than Loris Bicocchi lurches forward in his seat like we’ve just hit a brick wall at speed. Good times.
For those of you who haven’t been told that you’re looming, or compared to Paul Bunyan, the Stradale is the methodical, deliberate combination of big power and small size that just so happens to be able to decimate roughly any track car you care to name. It is, let’s be honest, a race car in all but name – which, if you know a spot of Italian, will already deduce is called ‘road’. You’re not fooling anyone, Dallara, but we don’t need you to – just keep building featherweight, race-bred roadsters with no doors and 400bhp and everything will be just fine.
BMW M2 CS
Is the CS overpriced? Is the space pope reptilian? But is the CS both teeny-tiny and heroically overpowered? Does the space pope have reservations about mixed metaphors?
But let’s move on from increasingly inane rhetorical questions and on to the idea of adding 444bhp to a small BMW. This, in recent times that seem more sane with every passing day, would have been something a tuner concocted to make headlines in every car magazine going; now, it was noticed and not cared about with the speed and clinical cold-heartedness of Patrick Bateman.
But nearly 450bhp from a turbocharged straight six, wedged into a car so small that it’s had to bulge out in every direction to accommodate not just the very convincing go-faster bit, but also the Jesus-wept-I-didn’t-mean-that-fast bits. Somehow, BMW’s designers managed to resolve all of that into something that’s easily the best-looking modern BMW – admittedly, not very hard – but also a genuinely brilliant-looking car. From the company that brought you the BMW X7 and the new tapir-snouted 3 Series. The mind boggles.
Renault Clio V6
Decades after its cancellation Group B rally is still lionised for its cars – and rightly so. Even now, generations later, we think of cars like the Quattro S1 and 205 T16 as all-time greats.
But with that wellspring of lunacy long since defunct, we’ve been missing out on the properly potty homologation specials that the series produced.
Yeah, um... did anyone tell Renault? Because they made not one, but two generations of rear-drive, mid-engined Clios that harked back to the golden days of 205 T16s and Renault 5 Turbos. Sure, they used naturally aspirated V6s instead of highly pressurised four-cylinders, but when has that been a bad thing? We’ve never met a car fan that said ‘Oh no, that’s just too many cylinders and not enough turbo lag’.
Mark our words, people: this thing is a future classic. Hell, it’s a current classic. And prices are... let’s say commensurate.
Aston Vantage V12 S
In the metal, the old Aston Vantage is actually a pretty diminutive thing. Broad as your average sitcom, of course, but generally tiny. And that made its 4.3-litre V8 a very entertaining – and loud – proposition. That became even more so with the 4.7-litre V8.
But if we’ve shared one vital piece of advice with you over our time together, it’s that if less is more, imagine how much more that more could be. And it’s this guiding principle that, we assume, led Aston Martin to put its largest engine into its smallest car.
The result is perhaps one of the finest sports cars to ever emerge from this decidedly damp and cold island, a 6.0-litre V12 swan song from the days of carefree performance. We know why it had to go away; that doesn’t mean we don’t miss it.
Lancia Trevi Bimotore
Yes, two Lancias on the one list. It’s almost like we’re fans of what they achieved or something, like continually striving to invent, transform and achieve under... let's say 'pressure'.
Also, we’re betting that a great many of you haven’t heard of the Trevi Bimotore before. Not surprisingly, given that there was only one prototype that was scuppered faster than you can say ‘We have the great ideas around here, not you’. But it’s probably the best and/or craziest idea any car maker ever had to go rallying. With the series favouring 4WD cars, and Lancia only making FWD transaxle cars... you see where we’re going. Or rather, where certifiable mad genius Giorgio Pianta comes in. He was pivotal in the development of the Fiat 131 Abarth, Lancia 037 Rallye and S4 Group B cars, as well as the Alfa 75 that took the DTM and BTCC crowns back in the Nineties. But in the midst of those renowned achievements is a largely forgotten one: a 4WD Lancia Trevi, thanks to a complete engine and transaxle setup on both the front and rear axles.
Somehow, a single gear stick controls both the fore and aft gearboxes, and there are two separate odometers to keep tabs on what both engines are doing. Oh, and separate starter buttons, which is just awesome.
Each engine was the ‘Volumex’ spec, Lancia’s name for the 2.0-litre twin cam model fitted with a twin-lobe supercharger. So the Trevi Bimotore also gets to play the ‘twin-supercharged’ card, which automatically wins every card-based game. Each engine was good for 135bhp (it was a standard road engine from the Eighties, after all), but working in tandem, that’s 270bhp of boxy Eighties Lancia.
Yes, Lancia went another way, and no, we’re absolutely not sad about the Delta S4 that got the corporate sign-off, or the amazing transformation of the regular Delta from VW Golf rival to epoch-busting rally car when Group B was finally put to bed. We just thought you’d like to know that, somewhere in Italy, there’s a twin-engined Lancia with more pedigree than your average Crufts.